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InterFace Panel: Fickle Nature of Renter Tastes Creates Challenges for Multifamily Architects, Contractors

Multifamily architects and contractors discuss the challenges of curating the ideal amenity package in today's environment. From left to right: Evan Beattie of GFF, Stephen Miller of Andres Construction, Adrienne Faulkner of Faulkner Design Group, Carl Malcolm of JHP Architecture/Urban Design and moderator Spencer Stuart of Legacy Partners.

DALLAS — Multifamily projects are becoming more costly and time-consuming to complete, and the need to cultivate a unique amenity package that differentiates a property from the competition is contributing to inflated budgets and lengthier timelines.

As noted by a panel of multifamily architects and construction managers at the InterFace Multifamily Texas on Sept. 5, the definition of what constitutes an ideal amenity package is in a constant state of flux. The event, held at the Westin Galleria hotel in Dallas, drew more than 225 attendees.

The complications of designing and building multifamily communities are challenging and costly enough. That the amenities are subject to ever-changing consumer tastes adds another layer of complexity to maintaining project costs and schedules. Yet curating the right mix is a critical part of product differentiation in saturated markets.

Many amenities found in new properties reflect broader changes in consumer behavior, which is fickle by definition. Features such as Amazon package lockers, rideshare lounges, electric car charging stations and coworking office space exemplify how changes in the ways people shop, travel and work are trickling down to the design and construction of apartment communities.

“In our world, projects are increasingly complex,” said moderator Spencer Stuart, regional partner and senior managing director at Legacy Partners. “They take more time to evolve, and we have to be careful about our forward thinking on markets that affect amenities like electric cars, ridesharing and coworking space.”

In a true testament to how project teams must think outside the box when conceiving the best amenity package, Stuart added that his firm is toying with the idea of adding a space for esports, multi-player video game competitions that are rapidly growing in popularity. Other panelists weighed in with insights on the challenging nature of delivering amenity packages that capture the trifecta of uniqueness, affordability and renter appeal.

Creating Community

Flexible workspaces that can accommodate members of the rapidly growing “gig economy,” as well as generally foster a sense of community, are taking on bigger roles in multifamily design and construction, the panel concurred.

Adrienne Faulkner, founder of Faulkner Design Group, was among the first panelists to hit on the usefulness of flexible workspaces, which have appeal both within and beyond the community.

“We’re seeing a ton of coworking companies like WeWork that want to come in and do shared services and create a mixed-use feel,” said Faulkner. “These spaces can be configured differently to have breakout spaces, lounges, conference tables and countertops, all so people can have some flexibility. It’s becoming this sort of public-private, intermediate space that a lot of people can use.”

Panelist Carl Malcolm, principal and vice president of JHP Architecture/Urban Design, expanded on this theory by invoking the idea that users of flexible workspace want to be in a shared space, but still independent.

“Everything with this amenity wraps around that overarching idea of ‘alone together,’” he said. “The question centers on how you create these spaces that foster a sense of community, but allow residents to not actually interact with the other people they live with.”

The key to positioning these spaces as communal gathering spots lies in their flexibility, the panel agrees. A workspace can also function as a package receiving space or a rideshare lounge, all of which function as points of congregation. The capacity for these spaces to change and evolve over time is what makes them so valuable in today’s market.

Parking Paradox

As ridesharing grows in popularity, multifamily project teams are increasingly looking at reducing the amount of structured parking as a cost-cutting mechanism.

Rising materials costs for parking have played into this strategy. According to data on the producer price index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2019, the price of asphalt had risen by a whopping 72 percent over a three-year period, while ready-mix concrete prices had increased by 10.2 percent over those 36 months.

“We’re seeing more acceptance of reduced parking ratios in Dallas, from both the political side and the community stakeholders,” said panelist Evan Beattie, president of architecture firm GFF. “In some cases, we’re doing tandem parking, where one space blocks in another and both are assigned to a two-bedroom unit, or shared parking with another building. There are efficiencies to be gained with those measures.”

Beattie also touched on the notion of adaptable parking — designing the structure or space such that it could potentially be repurposed into a different use. However, he noted that the added costs of designing parking space with an eye for future conversion haven’t yet made this strategy feasible.

Malcolm of JHP echoed this notion.

“We’ve looked at adaptable garages, and had the thought that those vertical parking systems represent a way to peel the ramp back out of an existing garage and still access it,” he said. “You gain more land that way, but it only makes sense if the demand for cars is lower and the value of the land is higher.”

Other Considerations

As the discussion of amenities progressed, the panelists tossed out other examples of unusual features that have been introduced to new communities and how they’ve evolved over time.

Moderator Stuart noted that he’s seen multiple projects that have a full bar on a mid-floor level, naturally encouraging socialization. Third-party operators provide and serve drinks and snacks.

Faulkner cited coffee bars, noting that the inclusion of a Starbucks was initially very popular until owners and operators began to see their coffee costs spiral into several thousand dollars per month.

“Now if people want coffee, you have a place where they can put their card in and get their own coffee,” she said. “We try to make it more of a win-win for both sides, where end-users can have that service and flexibility without the developer having to pay for all those services.”

Multiple panelists pointed to accommodations for pet owners as an example of amenity evolution in action. For example, designing and delivering pet-based amenities is especially complex with high-rise projects, which increasingly call for dog parks to be on the roof because few renters want to actually live near that space.

Taylor Williams

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